At a half a kilometer long, Prelude, a floating natural gas plant built by Shell, will begin operating off the coast of Australia soon. The world’s largest vessel will call the Brown Basin of the Indian Ocean its home for 25 years, before it returns to land for scheduled maintenance. Launch date hasn't been set, but the last integral piece of the floating plant was shipped from Dubai in August 2014. (Schuler, 2014)
“Floating natural gas plants?” you might wonder. Yes, this is a real thing. In fact, leading energy business advisors Douglas-Westwood have predicted huge growth in the FLNG (Floating Liquefaction of Natural Gas) vessel industry world-wide through 2018. Due to the development of technology, many countries are moving toward floating vessels in order to import gas rapidly to growing cities. Capital expenditure in 2012 alone was estimated at $29 billion. Growing pains are inevitable. Most challenges concerning the construction and operation of FLNG’s are related to equipment, environmental hazards, and onboard safety.
Take a look at three major safety and environmental hazard challenges these vessels are facing.
1. Liquefaction Process
The main section of an onshore LNG plant is the cold box area where treated natural gas is cooled down to -162° C, turning it into liquid form. This allows the gas to be shipped—after being properly labeled—to different carriers. This refrigeration process will now take place in three different areas on the vessel. There is no disbursement method yet for the inventory of highly volatile hydrocarbons (needed for the liquefying process). It will have to be stored on the vessel. Because this has never been done before, it’s a theory that will realize more challenges each day, resulting in technological developments and patents among competitors.
2. Location and Offloading
FLNG vessels will have to work side by side with carrier vessels for removal of by-products. There are all sorts of safety risks that have not been carefully assessed yet, from collision, fire, or explosion on the carrier vessel, to spillage during offloading which could impact the ecosystem. Who will be responsible for regulation or workers’ health, while the vessel is anchored in international waters?
3. Leakage Impact on Vessel's Workers
Side-by-side loading will increase the risk of LNG leakage. This could infringe on the integrity of the workers’ living quarters. Appropriate personal protective equipment and respiration devices may be needed for those workers that come into direct contact with the process. The main issue expands further. If leakage were to occur, the workers’ living quarters may be impacted from such a release, exposing them to a methane-air vapor cloud, a byproduct of the LNG process, causing sickness and/or death. Another issue is that when LNG comes into contact with seawater, it’s a highly volatile reaction such as an explosion.
FLNG operations will need more risk management in place than an onshore LNG. Continuous assessment will occur. The industry is unknown at this time and at best is considered a very risky business. Workers will need to understand the hazards involved in working on a FLNG vessel. Preparation and communication is critical in such an unknown industry. Many countries are choosing to develop a fire and explosion response system aligned with the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) for FLNG vessels. This will include safety schedules, processes, labels and communication for all workers to be trained on (Pantry, 2012).
At Graphic Products, we’re proud to contribute to the safety and efficiency of maritime activities. Currently our systems assist military needs. TORO is a network independent system able to print long-lasting compliant safety signs and labels on nuclear submarines around the world. Our latest system, Catalyst, was built specifically with OSHA’s new requirements for hazard communication that involves the use of GHS aligned labels and signs. We look forward to contributing to the safety of more emerging industries such as the FLNG sector.